Changing your life starts with setting a smart goal. Here’s exactly what that means for you.
Think back to last January. Did you resolve to eat healthier, exercise more, or spend less? If so, you’re in good company.
According to a YouGov poll, those three goals are among the top five most common New Year’s resolutions, along with focusing on self-care (sleep more or stress less) and reading more.
Another quality those resolutions share: They’re all very vague, which might be the reason 92 percent of people who set New Year’s goals never actually achieve them, according to research from the University of Scranton.
What secret do the other 8 percent know? For starters, improving your well-being—whether that means exercising more, cleaning up your diet, or strengthening personal relationships—requires real habit change. And real habit change takes time and a strategy. More specifically, it takes a SMART strategy.
That means setting a goal that has the following attributes:
A SMART goal isn’t an endpoint—it’s a roadmap for exactly how to get there. And it doesn’t just apply to New Year’s resolutions.
Here’s what to consider before you ever set a goal to maximize your chance at success and lasting change.
1. Specific and Measurable
Figure out exactly what you will achieve, and how you will evaluate success along the way.
Do you want to get in shape? Eat healthier? Those are fine goals, but they’re vague. It’s easier to stick to a very specific goal that you can track, says Liz Hurley, R.D.
“It forces you to think things through a little more,” she says. “This helps weed out any extreme or unrealistic goals, and increases your chance of accomplishing them.”
For example, rather than saying you want to “get in shape,” you might set a goal of getting in 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or to walk for 20 to 25 minutes per day. If you want to eat healthier, you may want to commit to filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal.
These goals are specific and easy to measure. You either get your 20 to 25 minutes of exercise by bedtime or you don’t. And if you don’t, you can strategize to do better the next day.
Being able to measure a goal is great, but it’s even more important that your goal is realistic.
If your goal is too lofty—say, to lose 100 pounds or to run a marathon if you’ve never even run a 5K—you might get discouraged by how far away success is.
Instead of shooting for the impossible and hoping it will motivate you, set a goal that is challenging yet achievable.
Another key to success is pinpointing the important steps you’ll take along the way.
“We must facilitate ways to achieve our goals,” says Erik Bustillo, R.D. For nutrition goals, that might mean planning or even prepping meals in advance. “For fitness goals, it might be scheduling a walk each day or group fitness classes throughout the week.” These are all specific things you can easily do if you make it a priority.
In addition to being realistic, it helps to frame your goals and the steps you’ll take in a positive way, Hurley says. In other words, don’t focus on what you won’t or shouldn’t do—and instead focus on what you will and can do.
When it comes to eating habits, aim for things like “I will drink a glass of water with every meal” or “I will eat at least one serving of vegetables with every meal,” instead of goals like drinking less soda or avoiding sugar, Hurley suggests.
“We tend to do better with our goals when we have a mindset of abundance rather than focusing on what we can’t do or have,” she says.
Make sure your goal is something important to you—even if it’s only you.
“It’s crucial that it inspires and motivates you,” Hurley says. “If you set a goal just because you feel like you ‘should’ be striving or aiming for it, you’re less likely to stick with it when the going gets tough.”
Bustillo agrees. “I think the most important thing is determining a powerful enough ‘why’ or a purpose for setting a new lifestyle goal.”
When you’re coming up with a goal, make a list of specific, positive things that might happen once you reach the goal. This will help confirm it’s worth your time and energy. If you find yourself struggling, think of these positive outcomes and use them as motivation.
Simply put, give yourself a deadline.
It might seem counterintuitive to set a deadline for what will ultimately be a lasting change, but doing so will create just enough urgency that you don’t stray from your goal. It also helps make your goal more specific.
For example, rather than saying, “I want to start reading more books,” you could say, “I want to read six books in the next three months.” You can see how the person who sets that second goal will be much more motivated to succeed since they have a target date in mind.
When deciding on your deadline, think small.
“Instead of only setting goals for the full year, set goals for each month that work toward your larger goal, and revisit them monthly,” says Nazima Qureshi, M.P.H., R.D.
If your ultimate goal is to run a 10K, for example, your January goal might be to jog one mile without stopping. In February, aim for two miles, and so on.
These smaller, timely goals also give you the flexibility to speed or slow your progress based on what’s happening in your life, Qureshi says. If you have a busy month of caregiving or travel, you may just want to maintain your progress with a few runs each week, then start building mileage again next month. Ultimately, healthy habit change is about managing your expectations and celebrating small wins along the way.
Once you’ve come up with a SMART goal and figured out how you’ll achieve it, remember that things won’t change overnight. Even if the change you’re hoping to make is realistic, it may still feel hard at first. When this happens, remember why you made the goal in the first place.
“Thinking about achieving your goal should make you feel happy and motivated,” Hurley says. “Those feelings will keep us going even when life gets in the way!
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